‘Collecting These Times’

‘Collecting These Times’

North Jersey-based Berrie Foundation supports funders of history-gathering project

Angelica Berrie, left, Aaron Dorfman, and Idana Goldberg
Angelica Berrie, left, Aaron Dorfman, and Idana Goldberg

There is no such thing as an ahistoric time. Everything changes, and change is history.

Think of peasants toiling on some field in England, say, during the long Dark Ages. A woman’s life would seem exactly like her great-grandmother’s had been and her great-granddaughter’s would be. Very few externals would seem to have changed.

But of course nothing that lives can be entirely static. No two people’s relationships are exactly the same, and differences in relationships end up as differences in history. No two crop seasons are going to be exactly the same. No group of hunters will be exactly as good, as clear-sighted, as lucky.

Everything changes.

A pandemic seder plate.

On the other hand — that long-suffering other hand — sometimes history moves more quickly than at other times. Sometimes something external— say, perhaps, a pandemic — comes along and changes almost everything.

Like, say, now. Every day feels like history — the pandemic, the creation of the vaccine, its rollout. The discovery of new variants, new presenting symptoms, new long-term syndromes. New political solutions.

How do we tell this story? How do we shape this rush of weekly, daily, hourly events into something that makes sense?

How do we turn this firehose of events into history?

Thoughtfully. Mindfully. Consciously.

Rabbi Jon Spira-Savett of Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire, submitted this image of a livestreamed service in front of empty pews. All the images in this story have been submitted and archived. (American Jewish Life)

We’re able to do it now in ways that we’ve never been able to before. We can digitize images, store them and the words that describe them in the cloud, hovering all around us as electrons in the ether. (Or something. That’s an approximation!) But we still have to figure out how to order all that information; how to make it accessible and searchable and indexable and usable.

In the American Jewish world, many synagogues and museums are setting up their own archives; that’s a natural and useful instinct, but it’s a balkanized one. On a larger scale, some institutions have been putting out calls for material. Over the summer, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University organized what it calls the Pandemic Religion Archive; we wrote about a vital subsection of the archive, American Jewish Life, in August.

Now, some prominent Jewish philanthropists, museums, and academic institutions have joined to make the archives even broader and more easily searchable, as the history they chronicle continues to spin weirder-than-fiction spirals in time and space. They’ve created Collecting These Times, a web portal that combines and simplifies both collecting materials about the Jewish response to the pandemic and researching those materials.

Angelica Berrie of Englewood, the president of the Teaneck-based Russell Berrie Foundation, knows a great deal about both history and philanthropy. She lived through — in fact actively participated in — the revolution in her native Philippines — and she directs the very deliberate giving of the foundation named after her late husband with an eye not toward sentimentality but toward doing the greatest good in the most responsible, efficient, and effective way possible. So the foundation’s decision to fund Collecting These Times was made carefully.

Funerals during covid, like this one in Maryland, have to be small; mourners must be masked and socially distant. (Capital Jewish Museum)

“We know that this is a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, and by necessity a historic moment,” Ms. Berrie said. “When we think about the number of lives lost around the world — more lives than in the Vietnam War, as many lives as if we had gone through a genocide — when we think about this moment, we can’t see it as a blip. It is a history period.

“We think that people will want to share their stories and hear our stories. We don’t yet know what the impact will be on people’s lives, but we know that we have a responsibility to record history — the impact of history on our lives, on our community, on how it is changing the world. We are capturing history as it is happening.

“Collecting these stories now, as we are living through it, helps inform our future. We look back on similar situations — on the 1918 pandemic — and it’s a way to help communities of the future think about their own resilience,” Ms. Berrie said.

There are the stories, and there are the images — in this pandemic, of masks, of PPE, of the way, particularly at the beginning, people would have to undress and redress in layers of astronaut clothing to maintain their own safety and the safety of the people around them. “And we will look back and see images of masks, of Louis Vuitton masks on the runway,” Ms. Berrie said. “That might sound ridiculous, but it’s a way for future generations to understand what this experience meant for all of us.”

This man wears a matching tallis and mask during a socially distanced minyan from Adas Israel, a big Conservative shul in D.C., on rosh chodesh Elul. (American Jewish Life)

Each community must have the chance to record its own history. That’s why the Berrie Foundation is helping to fund Collecting These Times, for the chance it offers to tell the stories of the Jewish community as it faced covid. Separately, “we funded a storytelling project on the impact of covid on New Jersey communities,” Ms. Berrie said. In that project, the foundation works with state agencies as well as with other funders. “It’s for the same exact reason — to gather the stories of this experience, to give us insight and to allow for important research.”

Aaron Dorfman is the president of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, the funder first to the idea of supporting Collecting These Times. “We have a mission of helping people apply Jewish wisdom to universal human questions,” he said. “We focus on the way the Jewish wisdom tradition can help.” Normally that focus goes to such huge issues as climate change and political instability, “but we realized early in the pandemic that moments of crisis have been the crucible in which Jewish wisdom has been formed,” he said. “The canonical example is the Talmud, which is a 500-year reckoning with the destruction of the Temple. There have been incredible moments of intense flourishing of Jewish wisdom after times of turmoil — look at the story of Passover, after the exodus from Mitzrayim, of the Chanukah story after the Maccabean revolts. Look at all the issues of religion and theology that we are dealing with after the Shoah.

“We realized that this probably will be a similarly disruptive event for the world, and for the Jewish community, so we had a responsibility to help chronicle it.”

With one group of partners, the Lippman Kanfer Foundation focused on the stories of 36 representative American Jews; with another, after working with a large group of prominent Jewish historians and other academics, it partnered with the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, and the Russell Berrie Foundation to put together the portal called Collecting These Times.

Eve Mannes of Atlanta made this mask out of her husband’s kippot. (William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum)

That’s because “we realized that a lot of people are collecting, but there is no central gateway or portal, and no indexing,” Mr. Dorfman said. “In a way, it is like a Ph.D. student’s fantasy. Someone could go to an obscure synagogue in Omaha to work in its archives. But that’s not accessible to most people.” Another problem was that the work that had been done so far was “from the grass tops”; even the 36 representative Jews were famous or highly successful figures, but the “Jewish people’s experience of this history is absolutely universal.”

A third, equally important driver of this work was “the realization, partly because we were doing this work in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, that it had an inclusion overlay. American Jewish history has been primarily white, Ashkenazi European history. This was an opportunity to take inclusion separately.”

Idana Goldberg is the Berrie Foundation’s chief program officer. The pandemic project grew out of the idea that it would be a place for both researchers and contributors, she said; there’s a link people can click on to learn how to donate their stories and ephemera, and it will be tagged and indexed so the collections will be searchable. Another part of the project, a grant for work with American Jewish museums and other history-collecting organizations, helps people learn, among other things, how to take and archive oral histories.

Like Mr. Dorfman, Ms. Goldberg emphasizes the importance of the project’s focus on inclusion and diversity. “The funders recognize that history matters and that the way we look at it now is going to inform how future generations will see it,” she said. In other words, information that is allowed to vanish will not be around and therefore future historians will not be able to learn from it. “So at this moment, we are being intentional about preserving ephemera, documents, and stories.

Rabbi Mark Urkowitz teaches his weekly Torah class, now on Zoom, for a Jewish senior care facility in Houston.

“We saw that everybody was making Shabbes for themselves.” That groups were preserving their own material, but in ways that did not connect to other collections and eventually would flicker out in oxygen-less obscurity.

Now, working not only with Jewish museums but also with such academic institutions as Hebrew Theological College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the day school organization Prizmah, Collecting These Times can offer entry and insight into a range of Jewish responses to the pandemic.

Collecting These Times is, quite logically, at collectingthesetimes.org. The homepage offers clear links to both researchers and contributors.

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